By Margie Plunkett
The retreat property owned by the Catholic Cenacle Sisters will return to a residential land use after a deal to build a luxury resort on the Intracoastal property fell apart.
Council members voted Oct. 28 to restore the original designation to the 10-acre property despite a threatened lawsuit by the Sisters, a move that proponents insisted was a promise lawmakers made to the community that should not be broken. “The rights of the sisters are no greater than the other residents of Lantana. There are some things more important than money: standing behind your word and honoring the truth,” council member Elizabeth Tennyson said.
Residents had been concerned since the deal was first proposed and the land changed to commercial that if the developer backed out, a big box retailer could move in on the property. Council took up the ordinance to amend the land use at the special meeting to beat a Nov. 2 vote on Amendment 4, which if successful would require changes to local
comprehensive land-use plans to go to referendum.
While a stream of residents and neighbors implored council members to restore the residential use, others stood up for a commercial use that they said could benefit the town and property values. Sister Mary Sharon Riley of the Catholic Cenacle Sisters and her representatives explained that the property at 1400 Dixie Highway could sell for substantially more if it remained commercial, funds that would help support the retirement of many sisters who served over the years.
Her attorney, Al Malefatto of Greenberg Traurig — who had represented hotel developer Palm Beach Resort Partners when it initially negotiated with the sisters — said the commercial rating buoys the value of the Cenacle as well as neighboring properties. The
town had changed it to commercial because it was in the best interest of Lantana, Malefatto pointed out. Changing it back “would not only have an adverse impact on the town, but on the sisters themselves,” he said.
The sisters have been in very active conversation with the developer, Sister Riley said, although there is no contract on the Cenacle. “I believe that the buyer is still actively interested in the project and is indeed, I would assume, working on the financing. For me, it’s not dead, nor have I heard it called dead until I entered this room.”
But Tennyson interpreted the deal as dead, quoting the developer as saying in a correspondence that it wasn’t happening because financing wasn’t available.
While the council member said she’d like to see the hotel go through, “if someone’s not willing to put money on something, it’s just a dream.” If another good project comes along, Tennyson said the council would support it.
Malefatto and Grant Savage of Grubb & Ellis real estate, who was retained by the sisters in 2007 to sell the Cenacle, urged the council to vote against changing the Cenacle back to residential and to vote for a second ordinance that he said would give the town control over commercial development. That ordinance is scheduled for a public hearing Nov. 8.
Council member Lynn Moorhouse argued that “the nuns own the property and they have a right to do what they want. I’d rather put so many restrictions on that it has to come before council and we have to beat it to death until everyone’s happy — or at least not unhappy. This going back is way, way too fast.”
Bob Little, a regular at Lantana’s council meetings, was one of the several residents, including from neighboring James Place, who took the podium in favor of residential status for the Cenacle. “The residents I’ve spoken to do not want it commercial, they want to put it back to residential. Let’s put it back.” James Place neighbors opposed the development, but the parties ultimately reached a settlement agreement.
Others, like Jerry Bayuk, a planning commission member, argued for commercial. “A year ago we thought this was a great idea,” he said, noting the economy reached depths the council hadn’t foreseen. “This is an opportunity to keep something commercial that will rebound faster than residential will.”
Mayor David Stewart said he didn’t make a promise to return the residential status and wasn’t happy with handling the issue hastily. He asked Town Attorney Max Lohman what the risk was if the council didn’t take immediate action.
“The risk you face as a council is the one that brought you here this rapidly … the desire to put it back to R3 and the impending election and vote on Amendment 4,” Lohman replied. “Amendment 4 becomes effective immediately. If [the ordinance] was postponed and then subsequently adopted, it would have to go to referendum.”